Every year I go to France for a couple of months, it’s my get away time where I can do a little work on the old village house I bought for a song out where cows out number the human inhabitants. By now you’re thinking I must be rich. Hardly the case, I live off a small pension and can’t afford expensive vacations. It’s just the cost of airfare, a bit of food for the few months, and the yearly taxes and energy costs. Adds up to a few thousand each year. Anyone who wants to be a writer must learn to live very modestly since writing pays very little unless you hit the jackpot and are well known. Most of labor in obscurity and poverty if we’ve no other means.
Sometimes I drive down to Dijon in my fifteen year old car that looks like a yellow banana but the engine is still strong and young, not much mileage on it. Dijon is an interesting place to hang out. It is a university city and a tourist city and often the two intertwine as one gets out and about. The old town architecture is beautiful. Timber frame buildings still exist although there are perhaps only a dozen left. The rest is stone and reflects various historical trends. Glass and steel towers of business and residential living have risen on the outskirts but were never allowed to displace the older buildings. Dijon has kept it’s history somewhat in tact.
So for ten or twenty euros I can sit outside a cafe and drink a glass or two of local burgundy and watch the crowds pass by. Usually I have my notebook open on the table and scribble a few notes between sips. Leisure is an art form I am beginning to perfect. We Americans find it difficult to sit and not do for more than fifteen minutes at a time. The art of leisure is to make a glass of wine last an hour, much to the annoyance of the waiters. It’s a wonderful game I’ve learned to play.
But leisure all too often invites uninvited company and that particular day in June proved to be the case. You know, we Americans really stand out against the French locals so it should have been no surprise when an American picked me out. “Mind if I join you?” The voice sounded friendly and the face freshly shaven with that eternal American baseball cap perched upon his head I knew I would be dealing with a middle class American male. At least he had the good fashion sense not to wear it backwards as a show of stupidity. He place his beer on the table as he sat down. “I bought it at the bar so I wouldn’t have to tip the waiter. Sure is expensive traveling around in France.”
“The tip is included in the price of the beer. Same goes for restaurants, the gratuity is added into the price.” I relayed that information as casually as I could. “The waiter only cares about table turnover. the longer you sit and drink your beer the fewer people can be served. But don’t worry too much, it’s Tuesday and there won’t be much table turnover.”
“Say, you’ve been here before?”
“Well, yes. You might say that.” I wasn’t going to let on I had a place to live here lest he try to finagle a stay at my expense.
“Wow. What are you writing in that notebook? Boy your writing is very small. I can’t even read it. How do you do that?”
“Practice, lots of practice.” By now he seem anxious to make a friend although I was anything but encouraging.
“Everybody back home said I should go to France, you know. And so I booked this tour. Pretty pricey, you know. Today is called a free day. We’re suppose to go out on the town on our own. I couldn’t get anyone to come with me, seems they were already paired up or whatever. So here I am, just soaking up the atmosphere as they say. What about you? Are you with a tour?”
“No, I am here visiting friends.” Well, that’s not really a lie as I do visit with my English neighbors a few times a week. But largely I spend a fair amount of time alone. there are stone walls to re-point and short stories to write and a lot of editing to do. But no use telling him that.
“Wow. Say, that great. You have friends who live here? Staying with them I suppose? What part of town do they live in?”
“Oh, they live in a small village near Langres, about seventy kilometers from here. I’m just down here for the day on my own.”
“Well, what’s it like living in a French village? I bet they have a small cafe and everyone sits around drinking wine and talking about the old days.”
“No, the village doesn’t have a cafe. It’s a very small village and there’s not much going on during the week. They’er mostly farmers.”
“No kidding. Wow. Say, that’s real interesting. I used to farm myself. Boy, it’d be neat to go and talk to fellow farmers. That would be something I could tell the boy back home.”
“Oh, they don’t speak English. Just where is home?”
“Elkhorn Nebraska, a pretty place not too far from Omaha. Yes sir, got me three thousand acres and grow mostly corn and soybeans. It’s a good living for a man. Course not all women take to it much. My wife, gosh she was a pretty little thing when I was a courting her, well she never could get use to being twenty miles from the city. All her friends didn’t like that drive back before the highways were improved. You know it was gravel county roads and they’d complain how much the gravel kicked up on the underside of their cars and how much noise they had to listen to. and then she started spending more time in town. Starting spending the night with her friends. Pretty soon she was hardly home at all. Then a few months later I got papers served on me and she wanted a divorce. Course the judge was on her side. That was ten years ago, a long time. ”
“I am sorry to hear that. It must have been hard on you. Surely there are other women who life living on a farm.”
“I never minded at first. Just meant I had to do everything for my self and only a couple of people to speak to like the seed salesman and a couple of farmers next to me. We all know each other well in that community. Just ain’t no single women around, that’s all. I mean I go to the dances and all at the VFW and the Grange, but single women are few and far in between.” His eyes started to mist and his voice reached a softer tone. I could see him thinking, staring at the French women walking in pair and threes, carrying shopping bags and smiling as they talked. His smile had gone and he lowered his head. “Damn, I’m so tired of being alone. Damned if I know why I even came here.”